Tag Archives: Philosophy

Postmortem: Meditations

Meditations, written by Marcus Aurelius almost two thousand years ago, is one of the Great Works of Western Literature (and I capitalized that, so you know it’s serious). It’s a fairly short book with no narrative or overall structure, just a series of little notes — scraps of philosophy, bits of advice, quotations, observations — about how to live a virtuous life. Countless readers over the centuries have relied on its wisdom. And it sat on my shelf for many months, unopened and unloved.

One of the few pleasant side effects of airplane travel is getting time to read. On the way down to New Orleans last Saturday, I read Meditations start to finish in just a few hours.

The translator, Gregory Hays, wrote an introduction that’s one-third as long as the text itself, and he makes a number of useful points. Here’s the single most important thing to understand about this book:

The author never meant for it to be published.

Even the title was added much later, by someone else. In fact, by all indications, Marcus Aurelius never meant for anyone besides himself to read these notes. They are for his own use and his own betterment.

The rough, personal nature of the writing explains some of its quirks — for instance, why it seems so disorganized. And, above all, why it’s so extremely repetitive.

How repetitive?

Apart from the first chapter, which talks a bit about the people in his own life, the vast majority of notes are a rephrasing of one of these closely linked themes:

  • Don’t seek pleasure. Don’t avoid pain. If you’re in pain, even intense pain, just ignore it.
  • Life is short. You’re going to die. Everything changes. Man up and get on with it.
  • Don’t worry about what anyone thinks of you. If they hate you, screw ’em. If they love you, well, they’re gonna die sooner or later.
  • Expect nothing from other people and you won’t be disappointed. Be nice to everyone.
  • Everything you do should be for the common good. Avoid books, art, music, and philosophy, except to the extent that they help you reach your selfless goals.
  • See things for what they really are. Don’t get starstruck or sentimental. Even the purple Imperial robes are just sheep hair dipped in shellfish guts.
  • History’s a big cycle, the same things happening again and again, with just the names changed. You think you’re special? You’re not special.

Here’s an example of one of the actual notes (a very short one), just to give you a taste:

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

All of this draws heavily on Stoic philosophy — the source of our modern word “stoic.”

For me, the book was an odd mix of depressing, inspiring, illogical, and wise.

There’s a lot to criticize about this kind of thinking. For starters, it’s not very practical. Saying “Ignore pain” is easy enough, but standing up to actual pain in real life is a lot more likely to succeed if you have a strategy.

My needle phobia, for instance. I’ve made big progress on that front, partly from just “manning up,” but mostly with the help of specific techniques: systematic desensitization, deep breathing, distraction, and so on. I’ve found these tactics far more useful than just telling myself “Don’t be afraid” or “Ignore the fear.”

What’s more, such demanding all-or-nothing standards can leave you rudderless when you fail to meet them — as you inevitably will, over and over. For me, self-discipline works a lot better when I ask not only “How can I make sure I do this?” but also “What will I do when I fail?” Such notions find little traction in this book.

I think there’s a logical gap, too. It seems inconsistent to me when you say “It doesn’t matter if I die, it doesn’t matter if I feel pain, everything around you will soon be gone,” but then also, “Devote your life to helping others because that’s all that matters.” Why do their lives matter so much, if your own death is such a trivial thing? I’m not arguing against sacrifice — if it’s necessary — I’m just talking about perspective.

More broadly, I think the quest for total selflessness can lead to a peculiar selfishness of its own. Expecting total virtue from yourself, martyring yourself for the common good, still places you on a sort of pedestal in your own mind. It often feels like people who just help others, without going on some quixotic quest to eradicate their own selfishness, end up doing a lot more good.

On the other hand, there’s something refreshing about such a spartan, clear, uncompromising worldview. It’s inspiring to hear someone say, “Look, just do the right thing. You don’t need a special method for it, it’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but just start on it, right now.”

I was also struck by the part about not focusing excessively on books, philosophy, and the arts. I’m a book guy, obviously. I love stories, whether on paper or on a screen. I tend to think of good stories as noble in their own right — and I still do think that. But I also know I have a tendency to get mired in fantasy worlds, to dwell on the characters and plots of TV shows and movies and novels so much that it distracts from real life, and dilutes the power of the stories, too. Even reading the news can become a kind of fantasy if it moves past understanding the world and into escaping the world.

Over the past few days, because of this book, I’ve been trying to focus more on what I really need to do, and on not getting mired in fantasies. And I’ve noticed a difference in my life already. I’m getting more done, I’m reaching more of my goals, and I’m happier because of it.

I know from experience that such life changes don’t last — at least, not in a clean, unbroken line. My life has been an endless series of cycles: up and down, productive and unproductive, happy and unhappy, disciplined and undisciplined. This will be another, and it will end.

But I’ve been thinking about those cycles, too. If I can keep in mind that the changes are cyclical, I think that’s an improvement in itself. When I’m “up,” it will remind me to be vigilant, to watch out for whatever might start a downward spiral, and try to avoid it. When I’m “down,” it will remind me that it’s temporary, and not to get too upset about it — I just need to look for the next chance to start upward again, and maybe that chance is right away.

Anyway. Meditations is a weird old book, and it has some problems, but it’s short and thought-provoking and maybe worth a read if you’re into that kind of thing.

Or not. You’re busy already. Instead of reading a book that says “Do the thing” — maybe just do the thing!

Have a good day.

Being Sisyphus

Yesterday I wrote on Albert Camus’s book-length essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. He suggests that life is about fully confronting the absurdity of the human condition, engaging completely with life on your own terms, refusing to bow to either hope or despair.

Today I want to ask: is it really possible to live that way?

As I said, I don’t claim to fully understand Camus’s thought, but – at the risk of oversimplifying – it seems to me that he’s talking about a carpe diem kind of life, full of courage and energy and not limited by convention, able to look mortality squarely in the eye and keep on living.

But Camus doesn’t give much practical advice as to how to achieve this way of living. Is it really possible to achieve such an attitude by an act of will alone?

Partly, yes. Courage can be an act of will. I know because I have done things that terrified me, like jumping out of an airplane and getting an IV (I have a phobia of needles). It’s possible.

But each new fear requires new courage, and energy is limited. Trying to become Sisyphus by willpower seems exhausting.

Maybe there’s another path.

Regular readers are probably sick of hearing me yammer about Zen, but it really does seem to me that Zen is the means by which Camus’s ideal can be achieved in practice. To truly live in the moment, to suck life to the marrow, is the entire goal of Zen meditation. Enlightenment doesn’t mean eternal life, but it does mean an end to the fear of death. It means defying hope and despair alike in favor of something better: the now.

Or at least, so it seems to me. But then, I am badly out of my depth here.

No philosophy tomorrow, I promise.

Postmortem: The Myth of Sisyphus

The Myth of Sisyphus

Sisyphus, for those who don’t remember, was the poor fellow in Greek mythology condemned to forever push a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll back down to the bottom at the last moment.

Albert Camus’s 1942 work, The Myth of Sisyphus, is a long essay on philosophy. I read it this weekend. I can’t say I understood it all, but my personal summary matches pretty well with what I read on the Internet, so I suppose I got the gist.

The Myth of Sisyphus begins: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The entire essay is, essentially, about whether or not it makes sense (from a philosophical standpoint) to go on living.

(Note for those concerned: I am not suicidal, I just like philosophy. No worries, mate.)

Camus says that the human condition consists of two elements. There is the human mind, which seeks meaning, order, and unity; and there is the universe, which (despite the heroic efforts of science) remains ultimately chaotic and meaningless. When these two meet, the mind recoils or revolts, giving rise to a condition he calls “the absurd.”

So far, I’m with him. I think this is basically how life is. Life isn’t necessarily horrible or evil, it’s just…there. And it doesn’t care what we think about it. Life is absolutely insane, if you ever stop to think about it. Camus is right on the money.

He then writes that the only solution to this absurdity is to embrace it. Not suicide, but constant revolt, is the answer. Living life on your own terms. Taking in the good, the bad, and the ridiculous all alike. Never giving up trying to understand, even though you never will. Hopelessness without despair.

Camus writes that we must imagine Sisyphus as happy, because he has embraced his own destiny, hopeless though it may be. He has his boulder and he knows his fate, and he gazes on it without flinching. This is the ideal, the so-called absurd hero (using the term “absurd” in a positive sense).

What do I think about all this?

As I said, there’s a lot that I don’t fully understand in this essay. I’ve presented it rather simply; however the text of his book is anything but, full of references to other philosophers and complex arguments.

If I understand correctly, though, the essence of the book is carpe diem, seize the day, which I’m fully on board with. I’m also on board with not suiciding. I’m less on board with a life sans hope, but I think I can see what he’s trying to say there too: it’s not about despair, it’s about grasping fully what is, rather than hoping for what is not. Another element of carpe diem.

Of course, Camus also assumes death is inevitable, while I haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of eternal life (without religion) in this world.

What do you think?

The Lego Movie, Free Will, and Compatibilism

lego movie

I saw The Lego Movie last week, and it got me thinking. (Major spoilers ahead.)

As you’d expect, the characters in Lego Movie – the plastic mini-figures – act like real people. They think, they feel, they decide. Within the context of the movie, they have free will.

But the big twist at the end reveals what we all know anyway: humans control Legos. It turns out that everything the little yellow guys have been doing was the product of a boy and his father’s imaginations. The boy makes the character say something and the character says it within his own Lego world, as if it had been his own idea all along – because, within the imaginary world, it was his own idea all along.

Does free will exist, or not? Do we choose our own destiny, or are we controlled by some other force, like God or fate or the laws of physics?

The Lego Movie‘s treatment of this issue looks a lot like the philosophical stance known as “compatibilism,” which I believe in myself. Compatibilism says that free will and determinism are compatible, that in fact they are two different words for the same thing.

Anyone watching the Lego people move, talk, and think, would be convinced that they have just as much free will as the toys in Toy Story. They do what they want, when they want, for the reasons they choose. If that isn’t free will, what is?

Yet it turns out that everything they do is the product of another mind. Does that mean their will was somehow less “free?” Of course not, because free will was part of the imaginary scenario the humans were playing out. They were both happening at the same time.

In the same way, my own actions as a human being are completely determined by the laws of physics. My thoughts are identical with nerve impulses in my brain, which are controlled by the iron laws of mathematical reality. Does that mean I don’t have free will? Not at all. It just means that the machinations of my brain are identical with the machinations of the physical universe.

The father in The Lego Movie is played by Will Ferrell, which leads to a delightful coincidence. For the Lego people, Fate and Will are the same thing. (Ha!) So it is in life, says I.

Christianity and Me, part 2

Yesterday I wrote that I find Christianity beautiful, wise, compassionate, and beneficial. Why, then, am I not a Christian?

It’s very simple. I don’t believe it happens to be true. That’s it; there is no other reason.

I have not yet seen a convincing argument that God exists. Still less have I seen a convincing argument that Jesus is the Son of God, or God Himself. Now, I also can’t show that God doesn’t exist, so I’m not an atheist. I just see no particular reason to believe He does. So I’m an agnostic.

(Yes, I know that faith has its role. But faith without reason is blind, so for me, reason has to come first.)

There are of course many proofs and reasons that defenders have offered over the years for the existence of God, so it’s only fair to look at a few of those, as well as one major obstacle (in my view) to God being real.

The reason most commonly given is the existence of the universe. How can we have a Creation without a Creator? Now, modern Christianity generally doesn’t argue with science over the validity of evolution or astronomy, so most Christians these days probably agree that the universe began with a Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, and evolution is a Real Thing that Happened. But we still need God for the Big Bang, right? The spark of the universe, the laws of physics, all that.

There are two problems with this line of thinking.

First, it says that the universe must have come from somewhere – but then it immediately says that its Creator did not come from somewhere, but always existed. Now, we’re talking about very metaphysical, hypothetical questions here, so human intuition is weak. Is it really so much easier to believe that God always existed, than to believe that we’ve always had some form of multiverse that spawns off little universes like ours constantly?

Or if that’s not intuitively satisfying, consider this. In a universe with no God, there would be no matter, no energy, no laws of physics. In such a place, why shouldn’t a universe spontaneously pop into being? It seems strange to us, but only the laws of physics prevent such a thing. Without them, what’s to stop it? (I’m not saying you have to believe this is true – I don’t necessarily either – I’m just offering it as another possible way of intuitively explaining the universe that doesn’t require God.)

You could also argue that the universe and Earth are perfectly calibrated for life, custom-built for humanity, and that this suggests God. But I think the idea of a multiverse, combined with the Anthropic Principle, obviates the need for God in such calibration. (Again, I’m not saying I necessarily believe in a multiverse, I’m just showing that there’s plenty of room for doubt about God.)

There are, of course, many more arguments for God. But time is limited this morning, and the arguments have all been hashed out a thousand times before. Suffice it to say that I’ve heard many of them, and personally, I’ve found none convincing.

Finally, there’s one major stumbling block to the existence of a benevolent God, and it’s the same one everyone talks about: suffering.

Understand, when I talk about suffering, I’m not thinking of some abstract metaphysical concept. I’m thinking about Robert-François Damiens, who in 1757 was executed in the following manner. (Warning: graphic.)

Fetched from his prison cell on the morning of 28 March 1757, Damiens allegedly said “La journée sera rude” (“The day will be hard”). He was tortured first with red-hot pincers; his hand, holding the knife used in the attempted assassination, was burned using sulphur; molten wax, molten lead, and boiling oil were poured into his wounds. He was then remanded to the royal executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, who harnessed horses to his arms and legs to be dismembered. But Damiens’ limbs did not separate easily: the officiants ordered Sanson to cut Damiens’ joints with an axe. Once Damiens was dismembered to the applause of the crowd, his reportedly still-living torso was burnt at the stake.

I’m hard-pressed to believe that an all-powerful, all-loving God couldn’t have found some way to help him out here, regardless of any other circumstances. And don’t say suffering happens for the sake of free will, because plenty of suffering happens because of natural disasters.

For me, this is not an abstract thing. I have literally wept with grief and anger and shame for the sheer volume of human agony that God has allowed to happen in this world. I’m not saying you have to agree with me. I’m just saying that I take this very seriously indeed.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to be serious all the time. So if you have anything to say in response to my long ramblings, feel free to keep it light. As always, I’m open and willing to talk.

Christianity and Me, part 1

Mr. Trube asked me to write this post.

He and his father (coincidentally, also named Mr. Trube) have been reading and discussing a book called You Lost Me, which is about 18- to 29-year-olds who have left the Christian church. In other words, me.

I am not a Christian. I am an agnostic. But I was raised Christian, my parents were Christian, and my wife is Christian. I have a deep respect for Christianity, and (I think) a fairly good understanding of it. My rejection of it is not something I take lightly, nor something I came to quickly. I am agnostic because that’s where my search for truth led me, and for no other reason.

I’m what You Lost Me would call a “prodigal,” someone who has left not only the church, but also the faith itself.

Since Ben and his dad are talking about this so much right now, he asked me to share my own perspective, and I was happy to oblige.

Although many of my beliefs about Christianity are highly critical, there’s also much that I admire. In the interest of mutual respect and understanding, I’ll start today with the admiration part, and move to the critical part tomorrow.

What I Admire About Christianity

  1. Jesus. Putting aside for today the question of his divinity, Ben and I agree on one thing: Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, was a remarkably compassionate and wise human being. I do believe that Jesus existed as a historical person, and that his attitude was more or less as the Gospels describe. Be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you. Ask, and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find. You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more. I get chills – literal, genuine chills – reading these words. They form most of my own core philosophy on life.
  2. Forgiveness. Redemption lies at the heart of Christianity, and that’s deeply compelling for me. I believe people need second chances, and ten millionth chances, too. I believe we must forgive, as much for ourselves as for others.
  3. The Church as a community. I was never one of those people who hated “organized religion.” I think it’s great that so many people get together so often to do so much good. It strengthens interpersonal bonds, it strengthens the community, and it strengthens faith. Which reminds me…
  4. Faith. This is one of those words that has endless interpretations, and I believe my own interpretation is a bit different than the average Christian’s. Nevertheless, in my own way, I have a strong belief in the power of faith, and I think it is among the most powerful things we’ve discovered as a species.
  5. The idea of God and Heaven. I’ve got to hand it to Christianity: it makes a pretty amazing deal. Eternal bliss is hard to turn down. I love the idea that God could be real, that I could spend the remainder of Time co-existing with Him. It certainly makes me wish I could be a Christian.

So, with all these warm feelings, why am I not a Christian?

Stay tuned tomorrow.

Postmortem: Walden


Around 1845, Henry David Thoreau went into the woods and built a small house for himself by Walden Pond (Concord, Massachusetts). He lived simply, frugally, and mostly alone, and then he wrote a book about it. His publisher having rejected Ramblings of a Bitter Man Beside a Pond, he settled on the title of Walden.

I’m very torn about this book.

It’s littered with many profound insights…scattered among long chapters of interminable boredom. It contains deep wisdom…if you can pick it out from the vast sea of his crotchety blathering. It seems to me that a misanthrope wrote a book about the essential goodness of humanity, and Walden is what we got.

The quotes I’ve scattered throughout this post were among my favorite parts of the book. They should give you a flavor of the good bits. I’ll spare you the longer, more soporific sections.

Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense? The commonest sense is the sense of men asleep, which they express by snoring.

Let’s get to specifics.

First, I should be clear that Walden was and is an important book, the work of a gifted mind, the kind of book that rewards the reader for his time. I say this because I’m about to criticize it a lot, and I don’t want you to think that I don’t respect it. I do. It’s just that it also makes me very angry.

Many of the phenomena of Winter are suggestive of an inexpressible tenderness and fragile delicacy. We are accustomed to hear this king described as a rude and boisterous tyrant; but with the gentleness of a lover he adorns the tresses of Summer.

Walden is known for expressing a love of nature, of self-reliance, of economy, of the insight that can spring from silence and solitude. I’m 100% on board with all that, and it’s that sympathy with the core ideals which got me through the more difficult parts.

But Thoreau also (in my opinion) lets these ideas run away with him, which leads him to start spouting a lot of bullshit.

For instance, he says that he doesn’t read the newspaper, and he makes it clear that the trivial deeds of his fellow men are far less interesting than the comings and goings of the squirrels outside his house. Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree with this feeling, this idea that much of what we worry about is trivial, that nature is beautiful and too often unnoticed. But there’s also a great deal in the newspaper that does matter, because it can lead to joy or suffering for a lot of people. And if you stop caring about that, then in my opinion, you have left the path of real philosophy.

Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.

Thoreau seems to give in to his romantic side too often. I don’t mean romantic love – I believe he got through the whole book without recognizing such a thing exists – but rather, he lets his feelings guide him too much. He romanticizes the idea of hunting animals, going on about the harmony of man with nature, the nobility of the circle of life. I hate stuff like this, because he says it having experienced only the good side of the aforementioned circle: hunting and eating animals. One wonders how much nobility he would find in being devoured by wolves himself, or in watching them eat his sister.

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

It’s the same in his section about charity. He’s lukewarm on the idea of charity, preferring the ideal of self-reliance. Again, I’m all for self-reliance when it’s possible, but he seems to have no concept that sometimes, some people simply need help. So here we have a well-off white man in the era of slavery explaining that we shouldn’t trouble ourselves in the affairs of the world or try too hard to give to those in need. You’ll excuse me if I detect a whiff of hypocrisy there.

Standing on the snow-covered plain, as if in a pasture amid the hills, I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

I could go on, but I’ve rambled long enough already. In between the parts that put me to sleep and the parts that made me want to throw the book across the room, Walden was really quite beautiful – as the quotes indicate.

Read it if you can.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

Homer Simpson: “But what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, right?”
Doctor Hibbert: “Oh, on the contrary. The heart attack has left you weak as a kitten.”

There’s a lot of wisdom in The Simpsons.

The old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” has stuck around for a reason. Suffering really can build us up.

The pain of exercise makes us healthier. The pain of losing a loved one can make us kinder to others, if we let it. Losing a game can motivate us to be better players in the long run.

But there are exceptions. A car accident might leave you too scared to drive again. Abuse can permanently damage someone, mentally or physically. What doesn’t kill you may simply make you weaker.

The key to getting stronger isn’t suffering. It’s recovery.

Suffering without recovery is simply damage. But suffering is also necessary, because we can’t experience recovery without it. A life of pleasure is a life of weakness.

It isn’t the workout that makes us tougher, it’s the healing of the muscles afterward. It isn’t the pain of loss that makes us wiser, it’s reflection on what the loss means. Christians don’t celebrate the Crucifixion, they celebrate the Resurrection.

This is obvious enough if you think about it, but I’m not sure I ever had.

It’s a useful concept for writers if they’re working on character development.

I daresay it’s also a useful concept for humans if they’re trying to be better humans.

P.S. The fact that “daresay” is a single word makes me want to get with the English language and have its babies.

Winning Arguments and Losing the Truth

Listen carefully to an argument sometime.

It’s personal. Even the slightest disagreement (what’s the quickest way to get downtown?) is subtly transformed from a search for truth into a battle for being right, with the satisfaction and recognition that entails. It’s a social contest. We’re hard-wired for it. We want to win.

I’d like to propose the Argument Fallacy: the notion that winning an argument makes your position true.

Nobody would claim they think this way, of course. It’s absurd when you spell it out. We all know you can “win” an argument and still be wrong.

But we act like this fallacy is true. We judge the accuracy of our beliefs by how many battles they survive.

Not everyone does this to the same degree, but the tendency is always there. And you can’t fight the bias till you know it exists.

Arguments and debates can guide us to the truth, if we let them. An exchange of ideas, exposure to criticism, new perspectives, these are all excellent and vital things. We need arguments to challenge our ideas.

But winning an argument doesn’t make you right.

Maybe the person who lost simply isn’t as persuasive, as articulate, as quick on their feet. Maybe they don’t have all the information needed to defend their position. Maybe they just don’t care about winning the argument.

None of this has any bearing on the underlying truth. In the heat of discussion, that’s easy to forget. But remembering it will make us wiser.

What about you? Have you seen people seduced by the Argument Fallacy?

The Vice and Virtue of Laziness

I spend much of my time trying not to be lazy.

I’m writing this blog post when I could be asleep. I study statistics material for my A.I. even when I don’t feel like it. I go to work every day. None of this is anything special. We’re all familiar with this daily battle against laziness.

So we often see it as the enemy. It’s even listed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins: sloth.

But laziness can be a good thing, too. If necessity is the mother of invention, laziness is surely the father. How many machines have been created, how much software written, because somebody got tired of working and wanted an easier way?

The perfectly disciplined swordsman loses to the lazy warrior who invents a gun.

On a personal level, this means that self-discipline is…complicated. If I don’t feel like practicing Spanish on Duolingo, it generally means I should suck it up and do it anyway. But if I find myself getting lazy about Spanish practice all the time, perhaps that’s a signal I should be doing something else. After all, laziness evolved for a reason: to keep us from expending energy on tasks that don’t feel valuable.

(Not that I’m quitting Duolingo, by the way. It’s still fun. That was just a hypothetical.)

Laziness isn’t the only thing to manifest this vice/virtue duality. As I’ve said before, even vagueness can be a good thing.

The key, as in so many areas of life, is balance.

When you’re feeling lazy, how do you know whether to fight it or embrace it?